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No Amnesty for Pandemic Tyranny

Forgive the people in your life, of course, but never forget what officials did to us.

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The headline reads, “Let’s Declare a Pandemic Amnesty.” It would be risible if it were not so galling. 

We are to give a pardon to the officials who, over and over, proved themselves blustering little tyrants, and worse, incompetent? Absolutely not. We are to erase the record of those responsible for leaving sick children to waste away in hospitals all alone, for separating husband from wife, for stopping families from holding the hands of the dying or gathering for their funerals? No, no, and again, no. After mandates forced people out of jobs, and the vaccine-turned-therapeutic failed to stop transmission, are we really to stop asking about its potential side effects, or the relationship between pharmaceutical companies and the FDA? Are we really to let bygones be bygones for masking and lockdowns that will set students back for a decade, that shuttered businesses across the country, that multiplied deaths of despair? 

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Monday’s viral Atlantic piece—now subject to thousands of indignant tweets and TikToks and columns like this one—might be laughably outrageous, but it cannot be dismissed out of hand, for the Atlantic remains the mass middle-class, middlebrow magazine of choice in America; as a status symbol, it signals possession of a college degree, even suggesting a graduate school stint on top of it. It is Reader's Digest for good liberals embarrassed by Reader’s Digest, a West Wing script on glossy paper. The people who do not deserve a pandemic amnesty read it. 

Emily Oster is an economist at Brown University. She wrote her Atlantic essay to ask the other smart moms of the world permission to forgive herself for masking her kids. But the Atlantic published her little essay to obscure a critical point: experts should be held to a different standard than the rest of us. Some people are downstream from “the experts,” and during the Covid responses they did what they thought they were supposed to do, as best they could tell. Neurotic rule followers are annoying, but if there are any in your family you should forgive them; the relationship is more important than “I told you so,” and hopefully they can admit they were wrong, that they listened to the wrong sources. 

Other people are “the experts” and, more importantly, “the authorities.” And when they are wrong they must admit it, and be held accountable. That is what makes them, in our modern democratic and scientific society, authoritative: accountability to the public record. The Atlantic’s amnesty essay blurs those two categories, for Oster is both a private citizen and a public expert admitting she got things wrong. But she can only represent, only speak for, the class of experts in general, not the public health experts who formulated our pandemic response or the authorities who implemented it. Her apology to herself, to her children, to her readers, is not theirs. In actually considering what the piece suggests, an amnesty for disaster, Oster and her personal record on the Covid response hardly matter. 

The key paragraph seems reasonable enough, at first pass.

The people who got it right, for whatever reason, may want to gloat. Those who got it wrong, for whatever reason, may feel defensive and retrench into a position that doesn’t accord with the facts. All of this gloating and defensiveness continues to gobble up a lot of social energy and to drive the culture wars, especially on the internet. These discussions are heated, unpleasant and, ultimately, unproductive. In the face of so much uncertainty, getting something right had a hefty element of luck. And, similarly, getting something wrong wasn’t a moral failing. Treating pandemic choices as a scorecard on which some people racked up more points than others is preventing us from moving forward.

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Gloating and defensiveness are indeed natural human temptations. When indulged they do “gobble up a lot of social energy” and make discussions “heated” and “unpleasant.” But the conclusion does not follow from these premises. “Treating pandemic choices as a scorecard on which some people racked up more points than others,” is not “preventing us from moving forward.” It is the only way we can move forward.

Again: experts and public authorities are people who make assessments, predictions, and decisions on behalf of ordinary people, and they are supposed to be judged by the accuracy and utility of those assessments, predictions, and decisions. It matters, a lot, if they get things wrong, and it matters, a lot, that they got things wrong. 

Forgive your family. Even forgive authorities who say they are sorry and seek to make amends. But fire them, too. Throw them all out. “Getting something wrong” might not always be a moral failing, but it is a professional failing, in an expert or public official. They failed at their job. They should not be allowed to keep it. If they cannot be gotten rid of, stop up your ears to them. Whatever “hefty element of luck” went into getting things right, asking the right questions, before the consensus caught up, it is something we should all want more of. The score must be kept if we, the public, are to know who to trust, who to listen to.

The fact that some of those who were most right most often about Covid the disease and how to respond to it do not have the credentials Atlantic readers might expect should remind us those credentials were only ever a proxy for insight, for prudence, for leadership; they do not bestow it. So, no pandemic amnesty. The reckoning has not yet begun. 

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